Your smartphone is a portable Gestapo

[This is my translation from an article in the German broadsheet Die Zeit, 20/7/207, p. 40: Adrian Lobe, ‘Society is becoming a computer’. I’ll also park this at my other blog for translations from the German, Passing on the Flame. I think more people should perhaps start getting their heads around the deep structural change in society and shift in power which the convenience of the smartphone and digitalisation in general are producing for the benefit of corporate and state power elites. We are rapidly moving into a totally quantified ‘Googlist’ era of mass manipulation, with your handy portable Gestapo smartphone recording and measuring your every move. The only way to begin to solve such issues: increased democratic, social debate and control over both the internet and all technological innovation in general. Otherwise the current social trajectory of surveillance capitalism is towards a very bleak dystopian future, folks. In the meantime one could start with small acts of resistance like using a search engine like Duck Duck Go that does not record your searches like Google, avoiding corporate ‘loyalty and reward’ schemes and, OMG, considering leaving your smartphone at home now and again…I personally don’t own one, although my wife does, and I might very seldomly use hers when I have to (or she thinks I have to). I also do not need the constant manic distraction of Facebook or Twitter in my life. I need time to relate to the real world and to think and write.]

[…] No other technology has changed society as much as the smartphone. The screens held up at concerts and festivals are merely a surface phenomenon of a much deeper structural change.

When Steve Jobs presented the first iPhone ten years ago, nobody could have guessed that it would become a complaint box, a mobile doctor’s surgery and an election helper in one. The smartphone which, in a semantic sleight of hand, industry sells us as an empowering, trendy gadget, is in reality a measuring instrument with which you can also happen to telephone and photograph. And it’s not we who are measuring the world through our screens but we who are being measured. The smartphone records how many steps we have taken, where we have gone, who we communicate with, which search words we speak to language software Siri. Via these devices our total interactional and communicational behaviour is becoming readable and predictable.

The smartphone is now much more than a virtual assistant, it is practically an external hard drive of our brain in which all our thoughts have been stored: diary entries, business secrets, account numbers, political opinions. That makes it all the more problematical when police agencies secretly garner communications and read thoughts. Thoughts are the last fortress the totalitarian state cannot overcome. However digitalisation is making this boundary porous. Thought processes are now only raw data.

‘We are in the process of transforming our society into a computer’, says Yvonne Hofstetter, a lawyer present at the central Conference in Berlin on European Data Protection Day. Everything from leisure activities to political opinion-making is taking the form of codes and data. The tech companies are building a factory the purpose of which is to steer social processes via algorithmic feedback processes as in a cybernetic system. The software of smart cities automatically steer traffic, algorithms filter out hate and fake news, computer programs evaluate the creditworthiness of bank customers. Society is becoming a smart factory the aim of which is to produce data and measure human performance as numerical scores.

The US economist Shoshana Zuboff argues that we are moving from a Fordist into a ‘Googlist Age’. In the Fordist age, car manufacturers assembled car parts and produced vehicles in series. In Googlism, internet companies aggregate personal data, extract information and sell them to advertising clients as packages. In other words, the places of production are no longer factories but smartphones. ‘In surveillance capitalism’, Zuboff noted in the Harvard Magazine, ‘rights are taken from us without our knowledge, understanding or consent and used to create products which have been developed to predict our behaviour.’

The question is what role humans have in this smart factory called the ‘internet of things’. Are they merely one machine among many? Are they merely processors in a gigantic neuronal network, order-takers who carry out what the programmers dictate? Media theorist Marshall McLuhan already predicted in the 1960s that machines could one day be used to steer social organisation. He thought it possible to put computers ‘to good use’ and to ‘program societies’. Fifty years later Dmitri Dolgov, Google’s project manager for autonomous cars, declares: ‘We don’t build the car, we build the driver.’

This slogan is to be understood programmatically. Google doesn’t want to construct cars but rather an intelligent driver, an artificial intelligence which can be inserted into any chassis/hardware. For Google the ideal driver is an artificial intelligence system, a set of sensors with which one can drive anywhere whatever the make or model of vehicle.

The sentence ‘we build the driver’ is rooted in the notion of social engineering, a concept that for most people means the manipulation of people via designed environments, but which more narrowly means the artificial forming of social interactions. In his book Social Physics the data scientist Alex Pentland argues that one can develop a ‘causal theory of social structure’ via data and deliver a mathematical explanation for ‘why society reacts the way it reacts.’ Behind this mechanistic worldview lies the notion that data can explain every human behaviour and that social interactions can be constructed like the engine of a machine.

The techno-utopians in Silicon Valley are enamoured by the idea that a human is a physical object that one can quantify. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has declared that there is ‘a fundamental mathematical law at the basis of social relationships’. He has thus revealed his determinist world view in which everything from love to elections is quantifiable and steerable.

Using codes, Facebook’s emotion engineers can in fact steer the emotional life of a large city. In an enormous social experiment in 2014 Facebook manipulated the news feeds of almost 700,000 users. The aim of the experiment was to find out how positive and negative emotions spread through networks. The result was that those who received more negative news tended to post more negative stuff themselves, and vice versa. Where the human body is merely a machine, it can be disciplined. We are being aggregated, amassed and massified because masses are easy to move and steer.

The creation of the ‘new human’ that resonates through Dolgov’s slogan of the ideal driver was the utopia of twentieth century totalitarianism. Socialism followed the idea of the ‘new human’ as its educational model and the ‘new human’ was later pedagogically transferred into the mold of the ‘all-rounded personality’ in the GDR. The aim was to make citizens toe the line through indoctrination. The tech giants are no less totalitarian in their data collecting and surveillance, but these social engineers also have quite other tools for disciplining their users at their disposal: Facebook can re-educate its users with a few lines of code.

Although one should not ascribe any ideological motivations to the tech giants’ global construction plans, in the end every attempt to manipulate masses of people is totalitarian. What is happening at Facebook is a subtle technological gleichschaltung [Nazi word for organizational streamlining, bringing into line, standardising]. Users get a standardised set of tools consisting of emojis and the iconic like-button, a set which makes them data-friendly and thus mass-friendly. The personal profiles of almost 2 billion users are only individual masks: in reality, the Facebook cosmos is populated by standardised algorithmic identities described in stock formulas. In digital modernity uniformity is manufactured as ‘information’.

The sociologist and social psychologist Harald Welzer, author of ‘Die smarte Diktatur – Der Angriff auf unsere Freiheit’ (‘The Smart Dictatorship – The Attack on our Freedom’) – has called the smartphone a ‘portable Gestapo’. In his view, in every totalitarian system there were niches which were not accessible to the secret police and workplace or neighbourhood informers. In informational capitalism those refuges no longer exist. Today so much is known about us that there can no longer be conspiratorial circles. In his view, the principle which grounded the modern subject ‒ ‘nobody knows more about me than I do’ – is no longer valid in an age when Google and virtual assistants know more about us than we do ourselves.

This is a fundamental shift in power. […] The problem is not only that citizens are changing their behaviours and possibly censoring themselves under the influence of ubiquitous surveillance, but that corporations are getting knowledge which can be used against people with totalitarian intent. Amazon knows who is at home and when, who is saying what and, possibly, who is an offender. That is making individuals and their informational integrity vulnerable and manipulable.

The American internet pioneer and writer Jaron Lanier once said Silicon Valley was the ‘friendliest and most benevolent dictator class in human history.’ Facebook is used by almost two billion people ‘but controlled by only one person. This is an extremely unusual concentration of power. The founder will die sometime. And what comes then we don’t know, and it is beyond our control.’

So what would happen if a less ‘friendly’ tech elite took over, like the libertarian Facebook investor and Trump advisor Peter Thiel, for example, who moves in neo-reactionary circles and thinks democracy and freedom are no longer reconcilable? Then informational power could be misused. The one-time Google boss Eric Schmidt once declared: ‘If we want to do something that others should not know about, then we ‘d better not do it.’ That Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is apparently thinking about running for the Presidency (he denies the rumour but is touring through the US at the moment) does not bode well for democracy. If Zuckerberg should run, it would not be some media mogul who can depend on powerful lobbyists but an entrepreneur who has actually absorbed the media ecosystem and controls the informational infrastructure. Would users be able to read reports about Zuckerberg’s foundation in their news feeds? Probably not. Political opinion-building in the internet would then only be happening in an intranet. Democratic and analogue procedures would be left to the conclave of cardinals electing the pope.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on August 14, 2017.

3 Responses to “Your smartphone is a portable Gestapo”

  1. […] Source: Your smartphone is a portable Gestapo […]

  2. I remember reading Heidegger’s “A Question Concerning Technology”. It was a far-seeing understanding of what is becoming all-too-real now.

    You are well able to update that now for us low tech types, to give us a grasp of what’s happening to Our World so quickly: Before the shutters descend – as they certainly will before too long… Thanks Peter again!

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